When asked why he had committed to McLaren – allegedly until end-2024 – by RaceFans during an interview in Monaco on Thursday, Lando Norris listed the team’s plans to build a new wind tunnel as one of “a combination of a few things over the past couple of years that we’ve done, but then also things that we have coming up in the future.
Wind tunnels are extremely costly pieces of kit, not only to install but also to maintain and operate. A team is unlikely to obtain much change from $60 million (£42.4m) for a turnkey project, and even upgrading existing facilities to state-of-art costs at least half that. Then there are the annual operating costs: Aston Martin’s Otmar Szafnauer reckons on around $10m to run a tunnel and keep it fed with scale models.
He told RaceFans that a new tunnel is integral to his team’s plans for its new factory – currently in the advanced planning stages – so clearly he knows of what he speaks. A competitor team source suggested that annual running costs “could run to double that depending on how much aerodynamic development a team is doing, and on what basis.”
Now, though comes the rub: plans are afoot to ban wind tunnel usage in Formula 1 totally by 2030. F1 chief technical officer Pat Symonds recently claimed eight of the 10 teams favour such a ban once computational fluid dynamics is able to deliver accurate results. Symonds reckons that tunnels require up to 3000kW to drive the air at full speed, resulting in electricity bills of over $1m annually.
Indeed, the six team bosses present during the FIA’s pre-race press conference to greater or lesser degrees indicated their support for such a ban, although some did express caveats.
“If it helps curb the costs obviously it’s a good measure,” Alpine’s CEO Laurent Rossi said, although he did wonder “what the the CFD to track reliability is, and I think we’re not there yet, to the point that we can just get rid of the wind tunnel altogether.” Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff concurred.
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Mattia Binotto of Ferrari told the conference that, “It’s a long time from now to . I think all the teams are open to the discussion, and open to accept it eventually because it’s a long time from now. Are we today ready to ban the wind tunnel? Not at all.
“I think in general it has always been about design simulations and testing. Testing is still very important, whatever it is: Aerodynamics, power units, et cetera. I think it’s right to discuss it, but I think the testing is part of our normal engineering process, so for today, it’s important to have the wind tunnel, and let’s see how much simulation will develop in the future.”
The most intriguing response was, however, provided by Red Bull’s Christian Horner, who said he had “brought up [the topic] a few months ago to take a longer-term view because a wind tunnel isn’t particularly efficient, it’s not very environmentally-friendly and with the world evolving in simulations, the tools, the way that CFD is evolving so rapidly.”
He believes F1 should “take a 10-year view on this, so it’s far enough out that these effectively dinosaurs of machinery that are heavily consuming electricity and power become a thing of the past, and Formula 1 should be the cutting edge of technology.”
He cited the (Red Bull-developed) Aston Martin Valkyrie supercar as example of what could be achieved without wind tunnels. “It never went in a wind tunnel once during its whole development phase.” Given the team’s chief technical officer Adrian Newey ranks as F1’s pre-eminent aerodynamicist, Red Bull will have considered the full implications of an outright ban extremely carefully.
Tellingly, Andreas Seidl of McLaren – about to build a new wind tunnel, remember – “fully agrees with Christian.”
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He said McLaren supported the plan provided there is “a good medium- to long-term plan in place with a glide path of introducing this. At the moment we are discussing, at the earliest, introduction of banning the wind tunnels from 2030 onwards, which is something we support as well.”
In 2010 Manor Grand Prix Racing, later renamed ‘Virgin Racing’, revealed its first car – the VR01 – whose aerodynamic surfaces had allegedly been designed via CFD. Although there were a variety of contributing factors, in a total of 26 starts the design failed to score a single point, achieving a best result of 14th.
Over 10 years on, two teams, namely Aston Martin and McLaren, have concrete plans to spend tens of millions in whatever currency on building wind tunnels in the short-term despite the ban potentially being imposed in less than 10 years, thus committing (a conservative) $150m in construction and operating on new facilities. This suggests that they lack full confidence in CFD as feasible alternative.
As Binotto said, 2030 is some time off, but in F1 eight years pass in a flash – as the introduction of the current hybrid engines proves: that was eight years ago, when Lewis Hamilton was still a one-time champion. In practical terms 2030 may be too soon for a total switch to CFD, yet delays could entice teams to invest in costly upgrades for existing tunnels or build new ones – in turn making a ban more complicated.
Thus, as always, F1 has no time to lose. Any delays could cost tens of millions, which would in turn make a total mockery of any cost-saving ideals.
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